We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

American history – the long and the short of it

A History of the American People
Paul Johnson
HarperCollins, 1998

The Myth of the Robber Barons
Burton W. Folsom, Jr.
Young American Foundation, 1991 (3rd edition 1993)

Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People is a long (814 pages + notes and index, but no separate bibliography) but extremely well-structured book, so well-sustained that it is almost a page-turner. The author is openly partisan – i.e., holding to what was, by and large, the American consensus until the end of the Eisenhower era – and he opens his history by confessing its writing to have been a labour of love. There is no nonsense about starting it any earlier than the arrival of the first English-speaking settlers in 1580. Not being able to make a comparison with any other complete history of the US, I have to judge it in absolute terms.

The book is divided into eight parts, on chronological lines; there are no separate sections for the arts, sciences, social trends, or the like; all are integrated into the narrative, as are also the personalities, thumbnail biographical sketches and moral and political judgments. A painter himself, the author has much to say about US landscape painters of whom I had never even heard; perhaps significantly, Warhol, Pollock and Lichtenstein (to name those that come to my mind) are not even mentioned. → Continue reading: American history – the long and the short of it

Karl Popper? Rationality but no blueprint

The Lesson of This Century
Karl Popper
Routledge, 1996

This collection consists of two interviews with Giancarlo Bosetti in 1991 and 1993, who also supplies Introductions to them, and two earlier talks, given in 1988 and 1989. I assume (though this is not made explicit) that the interviews were conducted as well as published in Italian; the talks must have been originally given in German. Routledge, the publisher, gives information, and a picture, of Popper, but says nothing of Bosetti; if a book can be under-edited, this is it. Interesting as these interviews and articles are, could his publisher not have found more for us?

The title of the book is unexplained, and may not be either Popper’s (this is a posthumous collection; he died in 1994) or Bosetti’s. It may be in the nature of a warning, for Popper reiterates his injunction “Once More Against Historicism” (pp. 40-45), a slippery and subtle concept which as I understand it, goes something like: “Because I know where I am and how I got here, I know where I’m going and how to get there.” This might be all very well as a working idea if confined to the study; unfortunately, with Karl Marx, it got out, to be believed and acted on, even though his prophecies – immiseration of the proletariat and the resulting violent overthrow of capitalism – were falsified in his own lifetime, with many others since. As Popper says: “We can certainly learn from the past, but we can never project it to anticipate the future (p. 41)”. Karl Marx could not foresee the motor-car, and we can’t see the next revolutionary innovation, just as, Popper might have said, nobody foresaw the computer and the Internet. → Continue reading: Karl Popper? Rationality but no blueprint

Henri Pirenne on the impact upon Europe of the advance of Islam

Mohammed and Charlemagne
Henri Pirenne
Barnes & Noble, 1992

In view of the debates, controversies, outraged cries and tactful statements regarding the relationship between Islamic and (for want of a better word) Western civilizations, it is of interest to read this classic work (his last) by the great Belgian historian, Henri Pirenne. And when the reader comes to its end and wonders how to sum it up, prior to making a judgement, what could be more convenient than to find that the author, in his Conclusion, has done it for him in masterly fashion? So here it is, almost seventy years after the author’s death.

From the foregoing data [some 260 pages, broadly dealing with the Mediterranean economy from 300 to 800 AD], we may draw two essential conclusions:

The Germanic invasions destroyed neither the Mediterranean unity of the ancient world, nor what may be regarded as the truly essential features of the Roman culture as it still existed in the 5th century, at a time when there was no longer an Emperor in the West.

Despite the resulting turmoil and destruction, no new principles made their appearance; neither in the economic or social order, nor in the linguistic situation, nor in the existing institutions. What civilization survived was Mediterranean. It was in the regions by the sea that culture was preserved, and it was from them that the innovations of the age proceeded: monasticism, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, the ars Barbarica &c.

The Orient was the fertilizing factor: Constantinople the centre of the world. In 600 the physiognomy of the world was not different in quality from that which it had revealed in 400.

→ Continue reading: Henri Pirenne on the impact upon Europe of the advance of Islam

Mao’s unnatural disaster

Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine
Jasper Becker
Henry Holt, 1998

“The famine of 1958-61 was unique in Chinese history. For the first time, every corner of this huge country experienced hunger (p. 99),” writes Jasper Becker, after setting the scene in the first six chapters of this truly horrifying book. Of all the world’s man-made famines – and for more than the last hundred years there has been no other kind – this one was truly the most pointless. The peasants were docile, partly because there had been peace since the Communists had conquered the land in 1949, and partly because they had been systematically intimidated. If the Soviets had needed a famine to crush the Ukrainian peasants, nothing of the sort was needed in China. All the better-off peasants had been eliminated and the rest forced into communes. Despite the fact, a fact theoretically inadmissable, that these were less efficient than the family farms, they were just sufficiently productive to feed those that worked them and the cities which contained around ten percent of the total population.

The Chinese dictator Mao Zedong, having forced through collectivisation, may have decided to persist in the policy to prove Khrushchev wrong when he, in his “secret speech” in 1956, had come close to admitting it hadn’t worked in the USSR. Mao in fact, decided to go even further and, preceded by a campaign to raise the peasants’ hopes of a Utopian future, initiated his fantasy of The Great Leap Forward. This was something as close to irrational as the Cargo Cults of the South Pacific, where stone-age inhabitants cleared runways in the jungle and awaited the arrival of the transport aircraft they remembered from the War landing and disgorging every luxury of human existence. Though perhaps best known for the “backyard blastfurnaces” that produced useless chunks of iron from the peasants’ precious pots and pans, the most destructive feature of the Great Leap Forward was the agricultural disaster produced by the nonsensical theories borrowed from Soviet pseudo-scientists such as Lysenko. The grains that were planted and the density of planting were changed according to his theories, land was abandoned for fallow, bizarre notions about the mixture of manure with rubbish and “deep ploughing” were put into operation and peasants were conscripted to build dams which fell apart and canals which leaked dry or silted up. Since all these innovations were claimed to raise productivity enormously, exaggerated statistics were fabricated and, since everyone believed them, the first harvest was wastefully consumed, though it was, in fact, lower than that of previous years, already reduced by collectivisation.

It is difficult to know how far down from the top of the communist hierarchy the ignorance extended of the true situation as this got worse and worse. As for the Party cadres in contact with the peasants, they were unable to do anything but attempt to obey orders that came down to them, to extract the government share as a proportion of the false figures they had transmitted upward. Senior Communist Party officials travelled to the countryside and discovered what was happening, but merely encountered the dogmatic denial of Mao of what they had seen when they returned. Since he could punish their disagreement with dire penalties, the more honest voiced it in only the most tentative terms, while others simply lied and the whole situation remained deadlocked while the peasants starved. How long it was before Mao’s self-deception and bloody-mindedness yielded to a realisation of the facts is not clear, but at the beginning of 1961 he was blaming “counter-revolutionaries and landlords”, a formula he could not even have expected to be believed for the famine he now admitted to be happening. There is not the slightest doubt that Mao was responsible for the policies that caused it and for the stubborness that delayed its cessation or amelioration. Not only did he never admit blame, but carried out vendettas against those who brought the famine to an end, one purpose of his initiation of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. → Continue reading: Mao’s unnatural disaster

Chinese walls

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze
Peter Hessler
HarperCollins, 2001

The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth
Arthur Waldron
Cambridge University Press, 1992

“If you read only one book about China, let it be this,” says Jonathan Mirsky (whoever he is) on the cover of River Town, and, although I must have read fewer books on China than he has, I find it hard to disagree with him, at least if China today is the subject. Only Behind the Wall by Colin Thubron, comes to mind as a competitor, and even his more travelled account, just as China was opening up, is to some extent challenged by Hessler’s journeys, done in his job vacations. But to understand China today, there is much that should be known about its past. To know the history of The Great Wall of China is to realise it was a great mistake, an exercise in institutionalised, bureaucratic xenophobia whose failure did not even teach a lesson to those who rendered it useless. → Continue reading: Chinese walls

Christianity in China

Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power
David Aikman
Regnery, 2003

“[W]e have realised the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. … We don’t have any doubt about this (p. 5)”. Fifty three years after China went Communist, such is the view of a thirty-something Chinese social scientist in a top establishment in China’s capital. The former Chinese President, Jiang Zeming, asked what would be his last decree if it could be enforced, grinned and (according to an anecdote which cannot be dismissed out of hand), said, “I would make Christianity the official religion of China” (p. 17).

The first remark may not come as a shock to those who know their Weber and Tawney and combine it with a thorough disillusionment with Marxism, the presumed state of our Beijing academic. The second suggests that the ex-President was aware of the political U-turn, early in the fourth century, of Constantine the Great, son of the colleague of the Emperor Diocletian, last of the great Roman persecutors of Christians.

Aikman does not ask us to regard these reports as more than straws in the wind, but his own investigations lead him to state: “China is in the process of becoming Christianised … [i.e.] it is possible that Christians will constitute 20 to 30 percent of China’s population within three decades” (p. 285). His conclusion results from an intensive period of travelling and interviewing within China during 2002 and 2003 and an interest and residence in China off and on during the last three decades, including a stint as TIME’s chief in Beijing. He knows the language (though he also employs a translator) and, while plainly sympathetic to his subject, the state of Christianity in China today, is reticent regarding his own religious beliefs. → Continue reading: Christianity in China

Slavery under Islam

Islam’s Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora
Ronald Segal
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2001

Race and Slavery in the Middle East: A Historical Enquiry
Bernard Lewis
OUP; 1994

To treat this subject it is really necessary, as Segal has done, to run through the history of Islam from Western India to Western Africa, for during the whole of the period of more than 1300 years black slaves have been acquired and traded increasingly with the spread of Islam – indeed, it might be said that one reason for the spread of Islam was trade, of which slaves were a considerable part.

In Islam’s Black Slaves Segal makes very clear the difference between the Islamic trade, and the use to which it was put, and the transatlantic trade that brought blacks to the Americas. He has already written a book about the latter subject, The Black Diaspora, and it is probable that he regards it as the greater crime. Slaves in the Islamic world were much more for domestic use and while in the Americas the imports were predominantly male, within Islam females outnumbered males by two to one, probably (though this is not mentioned explicitly) because slave-raiding involved killing the men to secure the women and children (as opposed to slave-trading with the black kingdoms on the African West Coast). Segal claims, however, that though the journeys of the slave-caravans were terrible, once the slaves had, so to speak, arrived at their final destination, their treatment was relatively humane. → Continue reading: Slavery under Islam

Changing the climate of opinion about climate change

Climate Alarmism Reconsidered
Robert L. Bradley, Jr.
Institute of Economic Affairs, Hobart Paper 146, 2003

This is a rather cautious riposte to the noisy consensus that seems to get all the publicity. Bradley follows Lomborg in pointing out that programs like Kyoto will make so little difference that the money notionally saved might just as well be spent elsewhere – dealing with poverty will do more to clean up the environment that instituting measures that will bear down more on the poor than on anyone else. Since their effect on climate will be minimal anyway, further, even more difficult negotiations must follow.

The free market has done more to solve problems of resource shortages and pollution than the activities of governments; a broad hint that these, defined as statism by Bradley, will be incorrect when applied to climate control. Perhaps unfortunately, he also coins the term stasism, to define the radical environmental position, basically “a wish to return to an idealised stable past” (p. 109).

He sees the current consensus as discounting the benign effects of greater warmth, which occur more in winter than in summer, at night rather than by day and where it is cold rather than hot. Also not taken into account has been the beneficent effect on plant growth of higher levels of carbon dioxide, the optimum for which is 800-1200 ppm, about two to three times what it is now (375) and twice what is forecast for the end of the century (522). He also notes that increased melting of the Antarctic ice sheet at one edge is balanced by thickening at another and by more precipitation onto its land-mass.

His non-polemical language makes it difficult to grasp his most salient arguments, and to some extent I feel that he assumes that the current fuss will die down and that it will become another scare to look back on.

There are three appendices, the first quoting forecasts that, over the years, have been falsified by events, the Ehrlichs being prominent here; the second, positive features half-buried in the latest Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published by the CUP in 2001; the third, extracts from Jevons, the first doomsayer on the subject of resources, in 1865.

I note that Bradley has written a book entitled Julian Simon and the Triumph of Energy Sustainability (2000).

A history of India and a history of the Indian Mutiny

Indian: A History
John Keay
HarperCollins, 2001

Soldier Sahibs: The Men Who Made the North-West Frontier
Charles Allen
Abacus (paperback), 2001 (first published in hardback 2000)

I have to begin with a confession: John Keay’s big and excellent book (576 pages, including notes, bibliography and index) is the first history of India I have read right through, though I have consulted and skimmed through others on my shelves. So it is impossible to keep in my head even the mainstream facts. From its final chapter, Crossing the Tracks, 1948 –, a metaphor of the historian’s journey “who … must get down from the air-conditioned express … cross the tracks and elbow his way aboard a slower, noisier train”, I gather that in it “India” no longer includes Pakistan, or even Bangladesh, a narrowing from the previous inclusive vista of the whole sub-continent. This may be a concession (together with others) to the fact that the title page gives “HarperCollins Publishers India” below “HarperCollins Publishers London” [their italics].

Indian nationalists may make grandiose claims for the age of their civilization, but the fact remains that its documentation does not really exist before the first Moslem incursion in the 8th century. The first civilizations so far discovered, Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, which are of course in territory now in Pakistan, cannot be linked with any other, even negatively by being shown convincingly to have been destroyed by the incoming Aryans, whose religion, the treatment of which is understandably sketchy, though not language, penetrated to the end of the peninsula; the history of Ceylon is left out.

Within this anonymous era, sparsely illuminated by oral myths and some inscriptions, there are a few peaks, such as Alexander’s invasion, which left written history behind it, in Greek. “Ashoka … India’s first defined historical personality” (p. 95 – never mind Porus), died in 231 BC, left some jargon-free, high-minded edicts carved on stone monuments – “extending from Orissa to Mysore, Bombay, Junagadh, Kandahar, Peshawar and Dehra Dun” – and, after uniting much of northern and central India, left an empire that quickly fell to pieces – like many other subsequent ones.. → Continue reading: A history of India and a history of the Indian Mutiny

How did Europe reach Promethean growth?

Unintended Consequences: The Impact of Factor Endowments, Culture, and Politics on Long-Run Economic Performance (Ohlin Lectures)
Deepak Lal
MIT Press, 1998

I felt I had to read this book twice to fully appreciate its message, yet it is not difficult to read, indeed to do so is easy and a pleasure. It must have been equally a pleasure to attend the lectures on which it is based. But a large accumulation of facts, each one of which can be seen to be relevant to the thrust of the book, are difficult for the reader (or anyway, by me) to hold ready to slot into a logical structure to be reproduced in a satisfying synthesis in the memory when the book is finished.

As for the “unintended consequences” of the title, these are the results of social structures, political motives and individual actions which often have quite different aims: “We have known since Adam Smith that an unplanned but coherent and seemingly planned social system can emerge from the independent actions of many individuals and in which the final outcomes can be very different from those intended. All this, I hope, is uncontroversial,” writes the author (p. 7). Well, I hope so too – but “we” needed Hayek and the collapse of Communism to convince a lot of other people.

Lal seeks to find an answer to the question why the explosive development that characterised the Industrial Revolution took place in Western Europe, though he merely mentions Great Britain as its origin, without further analysis (p. 20). Why not in the other great areas of civilization – India, China or Islam? He proceeds to examine the civilizations that arose after the development of agriculture from about 10,000 BC; pastoralism as a parallel development is mentioned but left undiscussed, presumably because it is basically predatory on and if successful, assimilated into neighbouring agricultural civilizations.

Such civilizations typically reach an optimum through what Lal labels Smithian growth, where greater efficiency is generated by division of labour and by trade, capitalism being the result (according to the precepts of Adam Smith). They are, however, limited by having only human and animal power and organic, rather than mineral sources of fuel. The breakthrough to Industrial Civilization, technologically based with mechanical power and virtually unlimited energy from mineral resources, Lal calls Promethean growth and this was evolved only in Western Europe. The question is: why? → Continue reading: How did Europe reach Promethean growth?

“Reagan was the main author of the victory …”

Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism
Peter Schweizer
Doubleday, 2002

“It’s surprising what you can accomplish when no one is concerned about who gets the credit.” This lettered sign stood on Reagan’s desk during his presidency and since it reflected his attitude, he cannot have worried much that his own part in the downfall of Communism has been seriously underestimated, a judgement which Peter Schweizer labours to correct in this book. For its theme, Reagan’s War, was the war against communism. By leaving out other aspects and events which did not touch on it – Israel, the Palestinians, the Lebanon, the Falklands, or the home economy – an exaggerated impression may have been given of Reagan’s singlemindedness. Even the inclusion of the assassination attempt, so nearly successful, is with an emphasis on Reagan’s belief that he had been preserved by God to conduct this war.

Reagan began political life as a Roosevelt-admiring Democrat. He had been aware of the attempt by communists to dominate and subvert the American film industry as early as 1946 and become involved in countering it, almost certainly sidetracking his career as a film star. The Korean War (1950-3) reinforced his attitude and, while still a Democrat he campaigned for Eisenhower, though disappointed later by his lukewarm anti-communism, and even less impressed by Nixon. This was also the time when anti-anti-communism became intellectually fashionable, Reagan encountering it when he was hired by General Electric to host and act in GE Theatre on television. Travelling round the country as the company’s roving ambassador to its plants and business contacts he was able to give speeches entirely based on his own views, unhampered by any kind of censorship. Schweizer distances Reagan from Senator McCarthy, who, he mentions, was initially supported by John F. Kennedy and never censured by him (p. 37). Reagan met Nancy Davis, who became his second wife (after his first wife Jane Wyman left and divorced him) through being asked to exonerate her of communist connections, apparently a case of mistaken identity. → Continue reading: “Reagan was the main author of the victory …”

The Balkans – blaming the Great Powers

The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers 1804–1999
Misha Glenny
Granta Books, 1999

Though well-written and well-organised, its length (662 pages +) and the nature of its subject make this a book to be ploughed through, as one switches from one depressing topic to another. Yet Glenny’s attitude to it all is a little difficult to fathom. On the last page he complains of the “long periods of neglect [when] the Balkan countries have badly needed the engagement of the great powers. Yet the only country to demonstrate a sustained interest … was Nazi Germany during the 1930s.” Some model!

Certainly, left to themselves, every ethnic group (Jews excepted?) behaved badly, both internally and externally. Just how badly the book is disgustingly, though not exactly surprisingly, informative. Yet this does not seem to arouse in Glenny any doubts as to the desirability of mixed-ethnic communities. Contrast this with Spain, where the essence of the reconquest there was the homogenising of the population, with the separation of Portugal, and the imperfect assimilation of the Basques exceptions tending to prove the rule that this uniformity was ultimately beneficial. Neither the Ottoman conquest, nor its liberation homogenised the Balkans. Much of it was Slav, the exceptions being Romanian, Albanian and Greek speakers, with a good deal of intermingling, a large Jewish community in Salonica, descended from Spanish expellees, the whole top-dressed with a Turkish ruling class and military. Not that being Slav in any way prevented mutual hatred between Serb, Croat, Bulgar and Macedonian.

Glenny has chosen 1804 as the date when, with the Serbian revolt, the Ottoman Empire started to disintegrate territorially. Attempts to halt this by progressive” well-meaning Sultans failed because any liberalisation encouraged it, while the economic levers were not in Turkish hands. After relatively discrete parts of the Empire had achieved independence or autonomy – Serbia, Greece, the Rumanian principalities and Bulgaria – the rest of the peninsula was land to be squabbled over. The impression is that the Turks were not major contributors to the turmoil, nor the Islamicised Bosnians and Albanians they left behind.

It is difficult to imagine how the great powers could have intervened more effectively than they did. After all, they brought about the independence of Greece (in nuclear form) in 1830, and a settlement of the Bulgarian border at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, after Russia had done most of the fighting. Not that Glenny seems very pleased with the Congress, loading it rather heavily with responsibility for future events in Afghanistan, Bosnia and the Sudan and for the scramble for Africa (p. 150). Admittedly either Austria or Russia could have tried to establish a Balkan protectorate, but why, except to keep the other out? And Britain would never allow Russia control of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. There was nothing to be gained from a political occupation of a region where all the natives would turn hostile. Economically there were no resources to be exploited or with which to set up an industrial base. Building infrastructure, such as railways, could be, and was, seen as a strategic threat, by the Ottomans or the successor states, or both.

In each of his eight Chapter-Periods, Glenny makes a repeat visit to each separate area, discovering depression and despair in every one, with assassinations for the prominent and massacres for the common people unlucky to live on the wrong side of an ethnic line or be a minority in a particular place. The only exception seems to be Slovenia, which managed to break away from Yugoslavia without much fuss. As man on the spot, Glenny must be regarded as an authority on Yugoslav disintegration and great power intervention, yet there is something contrary-minded about his castigation of America for not intervening sooner in Bosnia and trying to do so just by bombing “without risking the lives of their service men and women” (p. 640). As with recent responses to its intervention in Iraq, the US position seems to be damned if you don’t, damned if you do. Leaving aside the idea that the Americans might consider the bombing option (as also followed in Kosovo) a reasonable preference,surely the facts are that the initial EU reaction was that this was a European dispute and as such should be left to Europeans to take care of. Yet he makes no mention of the inactivity of the Dutch UN “peacekeepers” which preceded, if it did not permit, the massacre of Muslims by Serbs in the so-called “safe haven” of Srebrenica (p. 650). As for the Serbs rallying round Milosevic when he got them bombed, it must be a sign of the times that it is NATO and the Americans that Glenny seems to blame for the irrational behaviour of the Serbs (p. 658).

This is not a very gracious review for a massive, painstaking and brilliant historical survey, but it is a tribute to the fact that its judgements provoke thought and, to some extent, dissent. Incidentally, Glenny uses the presumably Slavic spelling and lettering with the appropriate diacritical marks, but gives no indication as to their pronunciation.